Atlanta‘s ambition has known no bounds this season. Ten episodes that were publicized as taking place on a European tour have taken us far from the show’s primary characters, into a variety of unrelated lives and situations. The finale is a long-overdue reconnection with one of the main four. Van has been a barely-there presence this season, skirting around the periphery of the action and resisting Earn’s attempts to connect with her. Finally, in this episode, we learn where she’s been and (more significantly) what’s on her mind. Van has fled to Paris, where she’s taken up with a chef, adopted an Audrey Tatou haircut, and assumed a French accent. Naturally.
The framing for this discovery is clever. Candice (Adriyan Rae), a friend of Van’s from Atlanta, is in Paris to meet a wealthy man for a lucrative sexual encounter. She’s brought her friends Shanice (Shanice Castro) and Xosha (Xosha Roquemore) along on a vacation. (The matter-of-fact exposition is perfectly pitched: A decade ago, the sex-work premise would have been more shocking; in today’s world, where Onlyfans is a workaday option for a debt-burdened generation, it’s just an excuse for a girls’ trip. No kink-shaming here.) But how will they find touristy fun? “You have to know a local to get to the crazy stuff,” laments Candice.
Solution granted. Candice spots Van on the street, and this newly French version — so French she’s wearing a striped shirt and toting a giant baguette in her backpack — takes the trio along to errands around Paris, where they learn about her new life. She is engaged in some sort of psychosexual power game with Alexander Skarsgard (who plays a lecherous version of himself). She plants drugs. She beats a man bloody with the stale baguette in a confrontation over a mysterious package. In an encounter with a group of toughs, they refer to Van as Tarrare. “The man who ate the baby,” Van explains, to her weirded-out companions. (It’s a reference to a French historical figure, a traveling showman who hung out with prostitutes and thieves and whose insatiable appetite ultimately led him to eat flesh.) On that note, the quartet heads to a party at Skarsgard’s, where Van is cooking up the meal with her new French boyfriend.
None of this makes any logical sense in the realistic world of Atlanta we remember from season one. You have to just give yourself over to the show’s version of reality, or what its reality has become. This is Amelie, Atlanta style, a sendup of all the trope-laden stories of young female protagonists tripping blithely through the continent, from Roman Holiday it Emily In Paris. Those women lived lives of total whimsy and romance. Atlanta‘s view of modern-day Paris involves sex work, kink — and in a swerve that takes the episode from clear-eyed to total surrealism — baguette-bludgeoning and cannibalism.
It’s a concept, but it works. One reason is the always-wonderful Beetz, who really gets to demonstrate her range here. Whether she’s serving that blitheness, breaking down and breaking plates at the dinner party, or delivering that deeply felt monologue by the river, she’s exceptional.
Another reason is Stefani Robinson’s script, which confronts the reality that living a conceptual life is rarely satisfying. After dipping into the farcical and surreal, “Tarrare” touches from a very real place. In that waterside revelation, Van relates her struggles with internal darkness and identity and why she fled Atlanta. Her line about Lottie looking at her with disappointment is a heartbreaker, a sharp example of the lies depression can tell us — it doesn’t just plant thoughts in your head, it can paste expressions over the faces of the people who love you. Of course, the confessional ends with Candice reminding Van, “Don’t you have to pee on someone?” Even if you find the rest of the episode overdone, this scene is precisely balanced.
For the record, Candice takes Van back home, and Shanice steps into her assignment. That final shot is as funny a sendup of the stereotypical notion of Paris romance as I’ve ever seen. It’s also kind of an ideal button on the season, in that it’s not a button on the season at all. We were taken to unexpected places by a show that was unafraid to make raw and discordant stops along the way.
Some won’t find this final satisfying. We see no evidence of Earn, Paper Boi, and Darius. There’s no indication of how the European tour is going. There’s no setup for the next cycle of episodes, other than Van heading back to Atlanta. The show’s approach to this season is likely to be much discussed. Two tracks ran throughout — one anthological, one episodic — which didn’t allow for much character progression among its main four. Ultimately, it took our expectations of a traditional narrative and, well, pissed on ’em.
Is this fair to those characters and the viewer? That’s a question for the season, but not this episode. Some people who love TV get most excited when a show breaks boundaries of content or format. Others are primarily concerned with characters and their care and feeding. By those criteria, this season was thrilling and frustrating. Also by those criteria, the finale was a complete success. Van (and Beetz) got a day in the sun, and a wealthy Frenchman got peed on under the moonlight.
- The symbolism of Tarrare, that cannibalistic friend of sex workers and thieves, works overtime. It’s an obscure enough reference that it doesn’t seem, um, heavy-handed. Van has herself been hanging around a gang of people who are both ripe for exploitation (and being eaten alive) and have access to more money than they probably should, including a friend who does sex work. (And maybe Van has herself? Van introduces Candice to her new boyfriend as someone she stripped with on a cruise. It’s not clear if she’s being facetious.)
- Skarsgard is totally committed here, displaying an appealing sense of humor about himself and the entertainment industry. His best moment: “You really fucked me back there — I might lose the Baby Shark movie now, ”he says to Van after she plants the drugs in his hotel room. Additional points for dancing in leopard-print underwear.
- I hope Shanice got the full fee, but she really should give Candice a cut for being a good friend to both her and Van.
- There are many good comic lines here. The Greek chorus of Shanice and Xosha are hilarious, particularly when they observe that Van hasn’t put down her giant baguette. “Maybe it’s security bread — like she doesn’t feel French without it,” says one. Their exchange as they try to process what’s happening is another excellent moment: “She’s not hurting anybody. Okay, she’s hurting people, but they’re people who seem to deserve to be hurt. ”
- Will the show retain this split focus next season? I interviewed Robinson this week, and she wouldn’t say. I’m not sure Atlanta will repeat season three’s structural formula; the desire to needle and surprise is too embedded in its DNA. Or is it?